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Authors: Orhan Pamuk

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BOOK: The New Life
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“But then,” she had said one rainy night without taking her eyes off the kissing scene on the video screen, “there were things I knew nothing about, things that I would never know.” And after four or five slippery miles when the kissing scene was replaced by one where a bus which looked like ours was traveling across a charming landscape that was so different, she had added, “Now we are going to that place that is unknown to us.”

When the clothes we were wearing became stiff with dirt and dust, and the history of all the peoples who had stirred up the dust on this terrain since the days of the Crusaders had settled layer after layer on our skin, we would go shopping at random in a random town before we changed buses. Janan would buy herself some of those long poplin skirts that made her look like some well-meaning provincial school teacher, and I would get the sort of shirts worn by pale imitations of former selves. Later if we managed to look past the provincial administration building, the statue of Atatürk, the Arçelik appliance dealership, the pharmacy and the mosque, noticing the delicate white streak left behind by some jet in the crystal-blue sky, seen beyond the sailcloth banners of the Koran school and a circumcision party that was approaching, we would stop where we were, carrying in our hands our paper-wrapped packages and plastic bags, and for a moment we would look up at the sky with ardor before asking some faded bureaucrat wearing a faded tie for directions to the local public bath.

Since the baths were reserved for women in the mornings, I would while away the time in the streets and in coffeehouses; and when I went past the town hotel, I dreamed of telling Janan that we needed to spend at least one night on solid ground, in a hotel, for instance, instead of riding the tires again and sleeping on the bus. And some evenings when I managed to tell her what I had been dreaming of, Janan would show me the fruits of the investigations she conducted in the afternoon while I was in the baths: bound volumes of old photo romance magazines, children's comics which were even older, samples of bubblegum I didn't remember ever chewing, and a hairpin the significance of which was not immediately apparent. “I'll tell you on the bus,” she would say, giving me that special smile that appeared on her face when the film on the VCR was one she had already seen.

One night when, instead of the tawdry video film that was usually shown on our bus, a serious and sober announcer had appeared on the TV screen to give some death notices, Janan had said, “I am making my way to Mehmet's other life, yet he was not Mehmet but someone else in that other life.” Querulous red neon lights reflected on her face as we sped by a filling station.

“Mehmet didn't divulge much else about the person he used to be, other than mentioning his sisters, a mansion, a mulberry tree, and that he used to have another name and identity. Once he told me how in his childhood he liked reading the periodical called
Children's Weekly.
Did you ever read
Children's Weekly?
” Her slender fingers ran over the yellowing editions of bound periodicals stuck in the space between our legs and the ashtray, and watching me look through the pages without looking at them herself, she said, “The reason why I collect these is because Mehmet claimed that everybody would eventually return to a place within these pages. These pages constitute his childhood. They are what make up the book. Do you understand?” I did not fully understand, and sometimes I did not understand at all, but Janan addressed me in such a way that I felt I did indeed understand. “Like you,” Janan said, “Mehmet too read the book and apprehended that his whole life would change; and he pushed his apprehension all the way to its logical end. He had been studying medicine, but he quit it in order to devote all his time to the life in the book. He understood that he must abandon his past totally if he was to become a totally new being. So he cut off all relations with his father and his family … But it was not easy to become free of them. He told me that he had actually achieved the freedom to move toward his new life by virtue of a traffic accident. True: accidents are departures, and departures are accidents. The angel becomes visible at the magical moment of departure, and it is then that we perceive the real meaning of the turmoil called life. Only then can we ever go back home.”

Hearing these words, I would catch myself dreaming of the mother I had left behind, my room, my things, my bed; and feeling insidiously rational and commensurably guilty, I would construct fantasies of joining together what was in my dreams with Janan's dreams of the new life.

6

The TV set was always placed somewhere above the driver's seat, and some evenings we did not speak but kept our eyes on the screen. Since we had not read the papers for months, the TV—which would be bedecked with boxes, doilies, velvet drapes, varnished woodwork, amulets, evil-eye beads, decals, ornaments, and elevated to the status of a present-day altar—was the only window, other than the bus windows, we had on the world. We watched karate films in which nimble heroes bounce around kicking in simultaneously the faces of hundreds of derelicts, and their slow-motion domestic imitations which are made using clumsy actors. We also saw American films like the one where a smart and engaging black hero puts one over on the police as well as on the mobsters, or aviation films in which good-looking young men perform daredevil acrobatics with their flying machines, and horror films where pretty young girls are scared stiff by vampires and ghosts. In domestic films, which were mostly about kindly affluent people who just could not manage to find suitable and sincere husbands for their ladylike daughters, all heroes, no matter whether male or female, seemed to have spent time being singers at some point of their lives, and they continuously misunderstood each other so thoroughly that these misunderstandings eventually turned into a kind of understanding. We had become so used to seeing the same faces and bodies in stereotypic roles as the patient postman, the cruel rapist, the kindhearted but plain-looking sister, the bass-voiced judge, the lamebrain, or the intelligent matron, that when we saw at a rest stop the kindhearted sister sitting with the cruel rapist and calmly having rice and red lentil soup along with the rest of the sleepy night passengers in the
MEMORY LANE RESTAURANT
where the walls were hung with pictures of mosques, Atatürk, wrestlers, and movie stars, we were convinced we were being tricked. While Janan recalled one by one which of the famous actresses in the photographs on the walls had played victims assaulted by the rapist in the films we had seen, I remember absentmindedly regarding the other clients in the gaudy restaurant, thinking we were all passengers on an uncanny ship having soup in the bright and chilly dining room and sailing toward death.

We saw so many fight scenes on the screen, so many broken windows, glasses, doors, so many cars and planes that disappeared from sight and went up in flames, so many houses, armies, happy families, bad guys, love letters, skyscrapers, treasures that were swallowed up in raging infernos. We saw all the blood that spurted out of wounds, faces, slashed throats, and viewed endless chase scenes where hundreds and thousands of cars tore after each other, negotiating curves with great speed and then blissfully crashing into each other. We watched tens of thousands of desperadoes, male and female, foreign and domestic, with mustache and without mustache, who fired at each other without respite. “I didn't think the guy would be so easily duped,” Janan would say after one videotape came to a stop and before the next one appeared on the screen. And after the second video ended and gave way to black stains on the blank screen, she would add, “Still, life is beautiful if you are on the road to somewhere.” Or, “I don't believe any of it, I am not taken in, but I still love it.” Or, the happy ending in the movie lingering on her face, she would murmur between sleep and wakefulness, “I will dream of connubial bliss.”

At the end of the third month of our journeys, Janan and I must have seen more than a thousand kissing scenes. With each kiss, silence fell on the seats, no matter what small town or remote city the bus was destined for, no matter who the passengers were, be they the sort who travel with baskets full of eggs or bureaucrats carrying briefcases; I would become aware of Janan's hands on her knees or her lap, and for a moment I yearned to do something significant that was profoundly forceful and tough. I even succeeded one rainy summer's eve in doing something I was not totally aware that I wanted to do, or something close to it.

The darkened bus was half full; we were sitting somewhere in the middle; and on the video screen it was raining in a tropical scene that was very distant and foreign. I had instinctively brought my face closer to the window, thereby closer to Janan, and I noticed it was raining outside. My Janan was smiling at me when I kissed her on the lips as they do in the movies and on TV, or as I imagined they did; I kissed her as she struggled, O Angel, with all my might, desire, and fury, drawing blood.

“No, my dear, no!” she said to me. “You look so like him but you are not him. He is somewhere else.”

Was the pink glow on her face a reflection of the most remote, the most fly-spotted, the most accursed of Turkish Petrol neon signs? Or of an incredible dawn breaking in the nether world? There was blood on the girl's lips, books tell us concerning situations like this, and the heroes in the movies respond by turning the tables over, breaking windows, and smashing their cars into walls. I anticipated the taste of the kiss on my lips, but I was confounded. It was perhaps a creative thought that came to my mind: I am not here, I told myself; if I am not here, what difference does it make? But then the bus began vibrating with renewed ardor and I felt more alive than ever. The agony between my legs grew more acute, making me yearn to strain, explode, and then abate. Then the yearning must have gone even deeper; it must have become the whole world, a new world. I anticipated it without knowing what would happen; I was waiting, my eyes moist, my body sweating: I was hankering for something without knowing what it was, when everything blissfully exploded, not too fast, not too slowly, and then abated and dissolved.

We first heard that magnificent pandemonium and then the moment of peaceful silence that follows an accident. I realized the TV set too had exploded into pieces along with the driver; and when the cries and moans commenced, I took Janan by the hand and led her safely and skillfully down to the face of the earth.

Standing in the pouring rain, I realized the bus had not sustained total damage. There were two or three dead besides our driver. But the other bus,
HASTY SPEEDWAY
, had folded in half over its dead driver's body and rolled into a muddy field, and it was teeming with the dead and the dying. As if stepping down into the center of life, we descended into the cornfield where the bus had rolled, and we approached it feeling enchanted.

When we drew near, we saw a girl who was struggling to get out a window that had burst open; she was working her way out feet first; her blue jeans were covered in blood. An arm still reached into the bus where she was holding someone's hand—we craned our heads in to see that the hand belonged to a young man who was too exhausted to move. The girl in the blue jeans freed herself with our help, but not for a moment did she ever let go his hand. She then bent over the hand and kept on tugging at it, struggling to pull out the young man. But we could see that he was wedged in between chrome and painted metal that had been squashed together like cardboard. He was upside down, looking at us and the dark and rainy creation outside when he died.

Rain washed the blood down her long hair, her eyes and her face. She seemed to be about our age. Her face, which had been invigorated by the rain, carried a childlike expression rather than the look of someone who had come face to face with death. Wet young woman, we were so sorry for you. In the light provided by our bus, she regarded for a moment the dead young man sitting in his seat.

“My father…” she said. “Father will be furious now.” She let go of the dead man's hand, then she took Janan's face between her two hands, and cradling Janan's face as if she were an innocent sister she'd known for hundreds of years, “Angel,” she said, “I found you at last, finally here, after all the journeys in the rain.” Her blood-streaked sweet face was turned toward Janan, glowing with admiration, longing, and bliss. “The gaze that always followed me, which seemed to appear in the most unlikely places only to disappear, and which made itself sought all the more for disappearing, was all along your gaze,” she said. “You know how we set out on the road by bus and traveled from town to town, reading the book again and again, just to meet your gaze, Angel, just to gaze back into your eyes.”

Janan smiled lightly, a little surprised, a little uncertain, but pleased and saddened by the hidden geometry in the girl's misapprehension.

“Keep smiling at me,” said the dying girl in the blue jeans. (I had fathomed, O Angel, she was meant to die.) “Smile at me so that I may see in your face for once the radiance of that other world; it reminds me of the warmth in the bakery on a snowy day where I stopped by after school with my satchel in my hand and got a sesame seed bun; it reminds me of the joy of leaping from the jetty into the sea on a hot summer day. Your smile reminds me of my first kiss, my first embrace, the walnut tree I climbed by myself all the way to the top, the summer's eve when I transcended myself, the night I was blissfully drunk, the feeling of being under my quilt, the eyes of the beautiful boy who looked at me with love. All these memories exist in that other realm where I too long to be. Help me to get there, help me so that I may blissfully accept myself dwindling with each breath I take.”

Janan smiled at her sweetly.

“Ah, you Angels!” the girl said, standing in the cornfield that resounded with cries of death and memory. “How terrifying you are! How pitiless, and yet how beautiful! While every word, every object, every memory gradually drains us and turns us into dust, everything touched by you and your inexhaustible radiance tranquilly remains outside of time. So, ever since my ill-fated lover and I read the book, we have long sought your gaze out of bus windows. I now see that it is your gaze, Angel, that is the unique moment that the book had promised, this moment of transition between the two realms; now that I am neither here nor there, I understand what is meant by departure; and how happy I am to comprehend the meaning of peace, death, and time. Keep smiling at me, Angel, smile.”

BOOK: The New Life
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